It’s highly recommended that you LISTEN to the audio below.

Here’s a question: Why do Latinos, but especially public radio reporters, love to over-pronounce their Spanish, even when they’re speaking in English?

If you’re a public radio geek, you know what I’m talking about, right? There’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez of KPCC and a regular contributor to KQED’s California Report, Maria Hinojosa of “Latino USA” and NPR’s Mandalit del Barco.

Gustavo Arellano pens the syndicated column ¡Ask A Mexican! and he says he gets this question all the time.

“In other words, if I’m talking to you right now in the King’s English and I say my name is Gustavo Arellano instead of Goo-STAH-voh ar-ree-YAH-no, why do I do that?” Arellano asks. “Why does Adolfo Guzman-Lopez say his name Adolfo Guzman-Lopez instead of uh-DALL-foh GOOZ-monn low-PEZZ? Why do we have to be so Mexican? Americans just go nuts about that.”

By Americans, Arellano means mostly whites, but I’m Korean-American, and I’ve wondered the same thing. And so I got Arellano on the line and asked him: Why do you say your name all Mexican?

“It’s the correct way. I mean, heaven forbid, us reporters, want to have our names pronounced correctly,” he answers.

But here’s the thing, I tell Arellano, “I’m Korean-American. My last name is Kim, or that’s the way I pronounce it, but in Korean it would actually be Geem, and if we were even going to go further I should really be signing out: This is Geem Quee-nuh Seuk, right?”

“You should totally do that,” Arellano quips.

“But I’d feel sorta silly,” I share.

“You shouldn’t feel silly,” Arellano counsels. “You see, if anything, you have some ethnic studies courses that you have to take so you’re not going to feel silly about that. And look at all the European language loan words that we have.”

And it’s true, you rarely hear public radio-type listeners mispronouncing words like c’est la vie or garçon.

“A lot of those words we are forced to pronounce them as close to the actual pronunciation,” Arellano adds. “And if you don’t, somehow you’re not cultured — French being the best example.”

At the same time, Arellano says lots of Americans don’t think twice about butchering Spanish. But he says it’s 2015, and Latinos are now California’s largest ethnic group.

“Maybe if I grew up in the 1950s, instead of Gustavo Arellano, I’d call myself Gus Arriola, like the great cartoonist,” Arellano says. “But now I don’t have any shame in saying my name. I don’t have any shame in correcting people who call me Ar-ruh-LAH-noh. More than anything, by pronouncing something correctly, you’re just making people smarter.”

But it’s not so cut-and-dried for all Latinos.

“You gotta ask people,” Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says. “For example, the former head of the teachers union in L.A. His name’s not John Pérez. It’s John Purr-REZ.”

I asked Guzman-Lopez: When you’re not on the air, how do you pronounce your name?

“Well it depends on whether I felt you could handle a Spanish pronunciation,” he says. “If I saw you and I thought, oh man she can’t handle it … ‘Hi, my name is uh-DALL-foh.’”

So then, why does he say his name with a Spanish pronunciation on air?

“Because I can,” Guzman-Lopez says. “And because my mom would get really pissed off if she heard me say it any other way.”

Fair enough. Nobody wants to upset their mom. But I have this question: Arellano and Guzman-Lopez pronounce their names in Spanish because they say it’s the correct way. But then, why do they say Los Angeles instead of Los Ángeles, like the you’d say it in Spanish?

“And, I think, that’s what drives non-Spanish speakers crazy,” Guzman-Lopez says. “Why not San Pedro? Why not Los Feliz? After all, it was a Californio-Spanish speakers that gave it that name. It seems like a whim, doesn’t it?

“A little bit,” I answer.

But then Guzman-Lopez and I start hashing it out. He reconsiders and he says, maybe it is whim. And in a way, doesn’t that just sum up the story of California?

It’s made up of people from a bunch of seemingly random countries, who’ve all assimilated in very different, very personal — and seemingly whimsical ways. You can see it in our food and our music and in our language.

  • nrs52

    Before we try to “educate” people about how to pronounce Spanish names, we need to educate those who think that all Mexicans are not white. Not all people from south of the border are “brown.” I’m Cuban and I’m white; I have friends from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia who are also white. In addition, we should start by using correct English. In your quote below, you say “us reporters…” when it should be “we reporters…”

    “It’s the correct way. I mean, heaven forbid, us reporters, want to have our names pronounced correctly,” he answers.

  • Dennis Romero

    I think it depends on your level of assimilation. My bro Adolfo grew up in San Diego like me, so I’m not sure what his problem is. Arellano, if I’m not mistaken, his first language is Spanish. I love him, but he doesn’t speak for all Mexicans, especially American-born, half-white ones like me. You’ll be hard pressed to find me pronouncing Dennis Romero as Denise Dromeerrrrro. And few of the U.S.-born friends I grew up with pronounce their names in Spanish either. In fact none of them do.

  • lga222

    It’s not a whim – Los Angeles is the name of the major US city that was long ago Anglicized, although at one time this was debated. Someone’s name, on the other hand, is not appropriated into the national discourse. It’s a personal marker of identity, including cultural, ethnic and linguistic origins.

    • Carleton Foxx

      The funny thing is that Sam Yorty, the long-ago mayor of LA, used to get criticized for pronouncing the name of the city as “Laas Angle-eez” which put him much closer to real LA Spanish than anyone who came after.

  • edgar aquinde

    however you like your name pronounce should be respected. but i do like the spanish pronunciation like the rrrrr. like when we moved in the sf bay area, during class roll call, aquinde is pronounce by my anglo teachers like–aqueenday. (didn’t say “here” in response, until the 3rd time when no one else responded). i liked the sound of it. now, i response to anglo & spanish. spanish intonations & pronunciations are romantic. the tounge just roll like honey with excitement.

  • Ricardo

    Dear KQED, be mindful of the following facts: 1. not all Spanish speakers are Mexican. The body of this text says “Mexican Reporters” and your article on the KQED website says “Latino Reporters.” Mexican people are Latinos but not all Latinos are Mexican. 2. Do you mean “Mexican American reporters” or Mexican reporters who hold a Mexican passport and most likely work in Mexico? Following your logic, should we call White American reporters”European reporters”? 3. Isn’t this the same rhetorical error America committed when it mistook Japanese Americans for Japanese after Pearl Harbor?

    • Penciljockey

      Who cares?

  • TomF

    As a public radio journalist from San Diego, I think about this stuff a lot. Yes… it is a little jarring for listeners to hear a reporter speak in flawless, accentless American English and then pronounce their name as if they’ve suddenly begun speaking to a Mexican audience. Sometimes anglicizing the sound of your name is the best policy. But this doesn’t mean we can’t say ah-DOL-fo GOOS-man LO-pez, for reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez. (I think I got that right!) My policy is you speak Spanish as correctly as you can using sounds that are common to English. In other words, no trilling of R’s. But do we tell reporters how they’re supposed to say their own names?? I don’t think so. Just know if you say your name a little too correctly, it might sound unnatural in the context of your medium.

  • SH

    It goes both ways. E.g., there’s a web site you can visit to learn how to pronounce your name in Japanese. No surprise: it won’t be exactly the same. Why? Because Japanese doesn’t have all the sounds that English does. Would you rather have your name butchered by someone trying to speak it in your accent, or accept that your name simply sounds different in other languages, or even dialects within the same language (go visit the U.S. South or New England sometime!).

    I once had a Danish professor with a thick accent, and he couldn’t pronounce my [very English] surname. So, in that context, my name just sounded different; it didn’t mean he was trying to insult me, and I certainly wan’t going to stop class to educate him on the correct pronunciation.

  • Rig Galvez

    reading this article, I could not believe the nature of this question at the
    height of civilization. I could answer it in different ways but will limit
    myself to be objective.

    With all
    due respect to Mr. Arellano’s credentials, in whatever studies he achieved, he
    is not an authority to answer for all. As a matter of fact, no one is. Why? Because
    everyone is different.

    When it
    comes to names, it’s up to each individual to decide how he wants to be called,
    and before I proceed I would like to call on a fallacy, since not all names are
    Mexican. Going a step beyond not all Mexicans have Spanish names, and not all
    Spanish speaking folks are from Mexican descend.

    ignorance goes as far as to thinking that all sounds from Latin America and
    even Spain are Castilian, the answer is NO, not all are Spanish, let alone Mexican.

    For example, my name is Rigoberto: Rigoberto r(i)-gober-to, rig(o)-be-rto as a boy’s name is of Spanish origin. Richbert,
    Variant of Herbert (Old German) “illustrious warrior”. The name dates back to the days when
    Spain and Germany were part of the Roman Empire, or even further back to the time when the Goths
    overran Europe in the fifth century AD, before dividing into tribes that occupied Germany and Spain.

    People in the US have called me: Rego, Ringo, Reno, Rito, Ray, Greg,
    Rick, Raul, Ruiz, Rico, Rizo, Ligo, Lindo and Redo to name a few. It doesn’t
    bother me one bit, because perhaps in their mind is how they perceive me as.

    When I give my name for quick reference such as the coffee shop or
    while waiting for a table in a restaurant I tell them my name is Rick, for a
    sure shot. At college my name has been Rigoberto as well as at the work place,
    people have a choice to call me Rigoberto, Rigo or Rig for short, however that
    is up to them. The pronunciation is well accepted according to each individual
    and I am not tripping on that.

    A name is something that you take with you, and it may very well be a
    matter of choice. The phonetic pronunciation should his or her choice, the
    bearer, not the audience.

    My youngest son’s name is Axel, some assume is an Indian name, like
    Mayan, others wonder why his name is not Spanish at all. (Or Mexican, like Axochitl)

    The article’s author explains: “I’m Korean-American. My last name is Kim, or that’s
    the way I pronounce it, but in Korean it would actually be Geem,
    and if we were even going to go further I should really be signing out: This is
    Quee-nuh Seuk, right?” — That’s up to her to decide, in all
    honesty, whatever tickle her fancy.

    There are
    many Hispanics with “European” names, so does that mean that if they travel to
    a Latin American country they should change their names?

    North-Americans have the tendency to be ethnocentric, and think that the US rules
    the world in all aspects and that include speech. No, the US does not rule the
    universe. A public radio dj shouldn’t have to influence or be influenced into
    changing some one’s name just because there will be massive listeners.

    • Silky Johnson

      North Americans are ethno-centric? Everyone is ethno-centric. It’s human nature.
      If in the US, though, the polite thing to do is use the American pronunciation. I change how I pronounce my name when I go to other countries. If I say “Johnson” in Japan, they don’t get it. I have to throw in a couple extra vowels and suddenly they all start nodding their heads in understanding.
      What’s ironic is that the announcers are the ethno-centric ones, not the listeners. In fact, the announcers should change their pronunciation to make their names more aurally pleasing to the listeners. One guy versus thousands of listeners? That’s the height of ethno-arrogance.

      • itissaid

        It’s not ethnocentric to say one’s name correctly. At some point, listeners need to take responsibility and be understanding of foreign names, etc. Your example about pronouncing your name in Japan is not really about politeness, but convenience. If you had pronounced it correctly, that would still be polite, but the Japanese listeners would probably not understand. Some people have difficult names even in English. It would be rude to ask them to shorten their names just because one was not willing to do the work to learn them.

  • Rig Galvez

    I believe KQED has been synonym of education, this article comes in much
    surprise, due to the lack of academic research, instead comes as a rough draft,
    without any value, other than the polemic invitation to discuss ethnic or
    cultural differences.

  • Carol

    I sometimes have “Maria Hinojosa” as an earworm! No kidding. She says her name so musically and emphatically, that it has functioned as an earworm for me, from time to time. Wow, finally some place for me to discuss this! By the way, I can limp along in Spanish, and manage these pronunciations fairly well.

  • Carleton Foxx

    For people in the news business you are all a little late to this party. Saturday Night Live did a hilarious skit on this very topic about 1980 (as i recall it was about over-pronouncing the names of Mexican foods, but es lo mismo).

    As a half-breed (Mexican-Anglo-Black) I am of two minds about this practice. On the one hand, it upsets white folks so that’s good. But on the other, it’s just symptomatic of the whole annoyingly arrogant public radio mindset—if you’re already talking in a fakey, know-it-all accent, it’s not much of a stretch to say your name in a way that will further torture your listener’s ears.

    But I predict that the fad will fade as time goes on. When I was very small, Irish Americans were quite proud of their last names, saying them with elaborate care, and so were Germans and Swedes, and Russians, and Italians, but you don’t hear them adding throwback syllables like they used to. For instance, when was the last time you heard Linda Wertheimer or Andy Borowitz use an old-country pronunciation on their names?

    I will be sad however, when Mandalit del Barco starts anglicizing her name. The rest of you—drop it already, it’s exhausting.

  • Erica Terry

    Bravo! Love this piece and the sentiment expressed. Reminds me of the story making the rounds about Uzo Aduba and her mother’s admonishment, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

  • Penciljockey

    How dare you Spanish speaking people of Spanish heritage pronounce your Spanish names in Spanish when clearly English is superior and you live here in America. The reality is that here in the US and especially in the South West Mexicans have always been here and the bias against Mexicans has stayed. So all you other Spanish speaking people from other places who are insulted to be mistaken for Mexican….just chill out and think about where you are…that is if you live in the South Western US. The only reason you’d be insulted is because you’re fully aware of the bias against Mexicans and you’d rather not be mistaken for one.


Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows - Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift - for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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